Skip to main content
Toggle Banner
You can make an impact in the fight for reproductive freedom.
Conscience Magazine

The Hard Truth about Reproductive Health under Obama

By Jon O’Brien June 29, 2015

There’s no doubt that the election and re-election of Barack Obama will always and rightfully be remembered as groundbreaking, historical wins. However, for those who support women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, his presidency has also been a profoundly disappointing one.

From the early days of the Obama presidency, it was painfully obvious to those of us who gathered with the administration to hear how they described their plans to “reduce the number of abortions” that there was a gulf between what this administration would do for reproductive health and what the community needed. Women deserve to have their health needs met and do not deserve to be used as a political messaging tool—the right number of abortions is the number that are needed. Rather than seeing our dream realized—a champion for reproductive healthcare in the White House—we’ve had an administration that acts more like an apologist. In the early days, any progressive reproductive healthcare wins were quietly folded into the Friday news dump, throwing out controversial news “with the trash.” Talk about hiding your light under a bushel—the Obama administration hid anything that had to with progressive reproductive health, even its own successes.

It’s not that Obama did not have the courage of his convictions—it’s that he has had neither courage nor conviction when it comes to reproductive health.

With majorities in both houses of Congress, the administration had two years to permanently overturn the Global Gag Rule and significantly improve the situation for women stymied by refusal clauses and religious exemptions. They could have done so, but they preferred not to spend political capital on policies that might be unpopular with the squeaky wheel of the ultraconservatives. This political calculation and absence of action by this administration will cause long-term damage to the lives of women and girls around the world. It’s not that Obama did not have the courage of his convictions—it’s that he has had neither courage nor conviction when it comes to reproductive health. We saw his administration in backroom meetings, bending a knee time and time again to Catholic charities or the Catholic healthcare industry and their need for multiple exemptions that deny women and men the healthcare and social services they deserve.

The administration has repeatedly listened to the bishops and other conservative religious leaders, rather than listening to the majority of people of faith who want sexual and reproductive freedom guaranteed for themselves and everybody else. Especially, the way that the administration handled the Affordable Care Act led directly to the Hobby Lobby decision. By setting apart religiously-affiliated organizations with separate rules in an effort to appease the Catholic hierarchy’s business lobby, the Obama administration opened the door for ever-expanding exceptions based on religious dictates, rather than protecting real religious liberty for all. It’s a sad fact that the exceptions this administration granted have now become the rule for bad policies. By appeasing their conservative Catholic friends and giving away the store on exemptions, it sets a bad precedent for the future. Today’s conscience clause on abortion will give way to tomorrow’s discrimination against gay employees—or any other aspect of an employee’s personal life a boss might disagree with. And let us not forget that it was, ironically, a Republican judge in New York who forced Obama’s FDA to give us over-the-counter emergency contraception. Even that victory was one the administration under Obama fought to block time and time again.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name: to the many people who work hard for reproductive justice, some Democrats aren’t always our best friends. However, considering the constant hostility from Republicans on reproductive health issues, Democrats are often our only friends. So many Democrats who have worked hard on Capitol Hill are beggared for belief by Obama’s aversion to standing up for sexual and reproductive health. All of that said, if you’ve not been convinced by this litany of disappointing inaction and capitulation by this Democratic administration, let me give you one more example of why so many of us find Obama so disappointing.

The Helms Amendment, enacted by Congress in 1973, prohibits foreign assistance funds for abortion services “as a method of family planning.” The policy has been strictly implemented by USAID as a complete ban on support or counseling for safe abortion care. It creates unwarranted barriers that prevent women around the world from following their conscience, and it unnecessarily ties the hands of agencies receiving US aid from providing critical care to the women they serve. Though this strict interpretation of Helms could be easily revised, the Obama administration, out of fear of upsetting ultraconservatives in Washington, continues to perpetuate this policy and do nothing. They do nothing even though this policy imposes an unjustly harsh interpretation of the Helms Amendment at the expense of the most vulnerable women, denying them the right to decide what is best for their lives and families.

It’s not as though the administration hasn’t heard from the reproductive health and rights community in the last six years about the Helms policy. We are hoarse from explaining to them how a simple change in procedure could make a profound change for so many women around the globe. The administration knows this. I know that the president knows this. A failure to act on Helms leaves me bereft of any hope for the change that this president once promised all of us.

As a Catholic, I feel an even greater sense of despair when I think about this inaction from a social justice perspective. Many of us believed that this president was about standing up for those who are vulnerable. Obama’s failure to act on Helms shows a new level of political callousness and a failure to see women’s reproductive health as something that a president should stand up for, rather than make apologies to extremist political foes.

However, as a Catholic, I believe in miracles. Maybe Obama will have a road to Damascus experience and this administration will stop apologizing to foes for what the majority of us believe—that federal dollars should be used for the common good to enable people to exercise their conscience–based healthcare decisions and finally bring an end to dreadful inaction. Vulnerable women and girls in some of the poorest parts of the world deserve no less. 

Originally published by The Hill’s Congress Blog on March 2, 2015.

Jon O’Brien
Jon O’Brien

is president of Catholics for Choice, where he promotes reproductive health policies in which every woman has the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, and the resources and access to exercise her choice freely. A lifelong Catholic and advocate, he is a leader in developing local, national and global strategies on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues with an emphasis on social justice.